Many years ago, I worked at a newspaper — let’s leave the name out of this discussion — that ran a Hanukkah feature, with lots of art, about an exhibit of menorahs. The interesting wrinkle was that some of these menorahs were quite modern or even postmodern in design, including several that specifically violated ancient Jewish laws about how to make, and how not to make, menorahs.
The newspaper feature did not note this conflict about the shape and content of menorah designs and the faith wrinkles in the clashing visions of Judaism built into these works of art.
Several readers, all Orthodox Jews, called the newsroom to ask if this oversight — for them, it was an offense — was intentional.
The answer was “no.” The people doing the feature had no idea that there were kosher menorahs and decidedly un-kosher menorahs.
You know the old saying about China, the one that says, “Just about anything you want to say about China is true, somewhere in China.” The same thing is true in Judaism. Trust me on that. On just about any issue linked to life and faith, there are plenty of Jews who disagree with one another. Often, this is a clash between very old and very new approaches to the faith.
Thus, I would like to offer limited praise to the A1 “Thanksgivukkah” feature that ran the other day in the newspaper that lands in my front yard. Let me note that the comments I now offer about this story could have been made about dozens of other stories in the mainstream press, as the tsunami of news builds related to this very interesting crossroads between ancient and modern calendars.
The bottom line: This Baltimore Sun story is lots of fun and contains all kinds of interesting wrinkles. The problem is that the Sun team never slows down long enough to note that not all Jews will be celebrating in the same way and why this is the case. By the way, this kind of dispute about religious traditions is at the very heart of the deeper meaning of Hanukkah.
More on that later. Let’s start right up from with the fine overture:
Brace yourself for the epic convergence of two holidays — a celebration of rich dishes, piles of sweets and family togetherness the likes of which have never before been seen and won’t be repeated for more than 77,000 years.
Thanksgivukkah is coming. Latkes with cranberry sauce. Turkey-shaped menorahs. Cornucopias stuffed with dreidels.
Thanks to quirks of the Jewish and Gregorian calendars, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will coincide this month for the first time since 1888, back when celebrations of both holidays were more muted. The next time the holidays will match up is the year 79,811. Why the long gap?
“Nobody understands it,” said Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation. The short answer, according to Wohlberg, is that Nov. 28 is the earliest possible date for Hanukkah and the latest possible for Thanksgiving.
OK, at some point all Hanukkah stories have to explain what this minor Jewish holiday is all about. This story is no exception.
Although Hanukkah is sometimes seen as being the Jewish equivalent of Christmas, the holiday’s underlying themes have more in common with Thanksgiving, Wohlberg explained.
“The concept of Hanukkah is a concept of thanksgiving,” he said. “Hanukkah marks the first victory over religious persecution. On Thanksgiving, we’re celebrating living in a country that has allowed us to have that freedom.”
The religious persecution and religious liberty theme is there. But there’s more. Later on, readers are told:
Wohlberg said this would be a good year to try frying the turkey. Since Hanukkah commemorates a miracle in which a small vial of oil managed to keep the flame in the Temple burning for eight days, Hanukkah foods, like latkes and doughnuts, are traditionally fried in oil.
Yes, that oil symbolism is crucial. But there’s another layer of meaning in that miracle.
Here’s a key chunk of a column I wrote back in 1996 about this issue:
The bottom line: How many Jews want to keep a distinctively Jewish spark alive in this season, as opposed to marching to the mall with everyone else?
The holiday in question isn’t even mentioned in Hebrew scriptures. Hanukkah is based on events in 165 B.C., when Jewish rebels, led by the Maccabees, defeated their Greek and Syrian oppressors. The rite of lighting menorah candles — one on the first day, increasing to eight — is based on a miracle linked with this victory. Tradition says that when it came time to purify the recaptured temple, only one container of ritually pure oil could be found for its eternal flame. This one-day supply is said to have burned for eight days.
Thus, Hanukkah teaches that Jews must defend the purity of their faith, rather than heed the siren call of the dominant culture. This is a troubling message in the age of Hanukkah bushes and children pleading for taller and taller stacks of presents.
The point I have heard Orthodox rabbis make many times is this: There was plenty of oil to burn in the Temple, if Jewish leaders were willing to surrender their ancient traditions and burn oil that was not worthy. The conflict at the heart of Hanukkah pitted Jews against their oppressors, but it also pitted some Jews against other Jews. Hanukkah is also about Jews refusing to compromise with the spirit of the age in which they live.
Read through the Sun story, and others like it, and you will see that Thanksgivukkah has created an even more dramatic framework for these debates, as traditions from one holiday blend into the holy days rooted in ancient traditions. The story did note one clash obvious enough for any newspaper copy desk:
Search the term “Thanksgivukkah” online and you’ll find baking recipes for turkey-shaped challah and pecan pie rugelach and instructions for making yarmulkes with pilgrim buckles and pumpkin menorahs. It’s no wonder the website Buzzfeed has proclaimed it “The Best Holiday of All Time.”
Locally, the Bolton Street Synagogue is celebrating with a pre-Thanksgivukkah potluck and latke competition. Wohlberg’s Beth Tfiloh Congregation is setting off fireworks. And Joe Edwardsen, executive chef and founder of Joe Squared pizza, is throwing a pre-Thanksgivukkah bash Nov. 21 with live music and a huge spread that includes mulled wine, turkey legs confit and the decidedly non-kosher treat of bacon-wrapped whole turkeys.
“It’s my two favorite holidays coming together,” said Edwardsen.
Right. Bacon on the menu? That’s obvious.
What about some of those rather untraditional menorahs? All I am saying is that the Sun team could have added even more color into this story by noting, for example, how Orthodox Jews are celebrating Thanksgivukkah and how that contrasts with the festivities being planned by liberal Jews and secular Jews. Who is who and who is doing what?